The meaning of the root word kafir is rejection, repudiating, hiding, covering up, obliterating, wiping off, blotting out. Who is rejecting and what is being rejected is not part of the meaning.
Allah is a Kafir for blotting out our sins, a tiller is a Kafir for covering the seeds with soil, a believer is a Kafir for rejecting false gods, a disbeliever is a Kafir for rejecting God, Satan is a Kafir for repudiating Allah’s right for being obeyed, Moses is a Kafir for repudiating the rights of his foster father the Pharaoh for being obeyed. These are the ways in which the word has been used in the Quran. Every use of the word Kafir is consistent with the meaning of the root word kafir.
Understanding the Meaning of Kafir
Satan was the first Kafir. What made him a Kafir? He was not a disbeliever and neither did he reject the faith or the truth. He disobeyed the command of Allah to prostrate to Adam. He became an ingrate rebel (Kafir) repudiating Allah’s rights.
وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ أَبَىٰ وَاسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ
(2:34) And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam” and they bowed down. Not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: He became among the Kafirin.
Going back to the original meaning of Kufr which is to cover up something, what was Satan covering up? His God given intellect, reason, and nature to obey and to be grateful to God was covered or overcome by his conceit (Takabbur) and envy of Adam whom he considered inferior.
قَالَ رَبِّ بِمَا أَغْوَيْتَنِي لَأُزَيِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَأُغْوِيَنَّهُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ
Al-Hijr / The Rock (15:39) (Iblis) said: “O my Lord! because you hast put me in the wrong, I will make (wrong) fair-seeming to them on the earth, and I will put them all in the wrong,-
Not only that, but he vowed to be an enemy to Adam and his progeny until Doomsday and hinder them from following the path of Allah. Kufr is therefore allowing your natural good self, reason and intellect to be covered by your conceit, envy, hatred and other base instincts, and like Satan, actively opposing and hindering the believers, for no other reason except their faith and because they invite others to all that is good and forbid what is wrong. Those who are Kafir for their rejection of belief, are not those who have not accepted “belief” or the “disbelievers” or those who are sinners in their personal life, but the active enemies of the people of good faith, their oppressors and persecutors and enemy of God like Satan.
Moses (Pbuh) Is Called Kafir By Pharaoh!
قَالَ أَلَمْ نُرَبِّكَ فِينَا وَلِيدًا وَلَبِثْتَ فِينَا مِنْ عُمُرِكَ سِنِينَ Ash-Shuaara 18,19
وَفَعَلْتَ فَعْلَتَكَ الَّتِي فَعَلْتَ وَأَنتَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ
Ash-Shu’araa / The Poets (26:18) (Pharaoh) said: “Did we not cherish you as a child among us, and did you not stay in our midst many years of your life? (19) “And you did a deed of yours which (you know) you did, and you are an ungrateful wretch (min-al-Kafirin)!”
The word Kafir in this verse denotes the trait of ingratitude and rebellion. It has nothing to do with faith or belief. Moses (pbuh) was following the command of Allah, but from the point of view of the Pharaoh, who had brought him up lovingly as a son; he was indeed an ingrate rebel who stood up against the Pharaoh, repudiating the rights of a father for obedience over his son.
The Believers Are Referred As Kafaru
وَجَاءَ الْمُعَذِّرُونَ مِنَ الْأَعْرَابِ لِيُؤْذَنَ لَهُمْ وَقَعَدَ الَّذِينَ كَذَبُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ ۚ سَيُصِيبُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
(9:90) And there were, among the desert Arabs (also), men who made excuses and came to claim exemption; and those who were false to Allah and His Messenger (merely) sat inactive. Soon will a grievous penalty seize the Kafaru among them.
The Kafaru referred to in the verse are those who professed belief and called themselves Muslim. They were disobedient rebels.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَنفِقُوا مِمَّا رَزَقْنَاكُم مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَ يَوْمٌ لَّا بَيْعٌ فِيهِ وَلَا خُلَّةٌ وَلَا شَفَاعَةٌ ۗ وَالْكَافِرُونَ هُمُ الظَّالِمُونَ
(2:254) O ye who believe! Spend out of (the bounties) We have provided for you, before the Day comes when no bargaining (Will avail), nor friendship nor intercession. And the Kafirun, they are the Zalimun.
Who are the Kafirun and the Zalimunin in this verse? Those who do not spend out of the bounties provided by Allah. The Kafirun and Zalimun refers to the addressees of the verse who are the believers who show their ingratitude to Allah for the bounties provided to them by not spending. They are ingrate rebels.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُبْطِلُوا صَدَقَاتِكُم بِالْمَنِّ وَالْأَذَىٰ كَالَّذِي يُنفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَاءَ النَّاسِ وَلَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۖ فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا ۖ لَّا يَقْدِرُونَ عَلَىٰ شَيْءٍ مِّمَّا كَسَبُوا ۗ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْكَافِرِينَ
(2:264) O ye who believe! cancel not your charity by reminders of your generosity or by injury,- like those who spend their substance to be seen of men, but believe neither in Allah nor in the Last Day. They are in parable like a hard, barren rock, on which is a little soil: on it falls heavy rain, which leaves it (Just) a bare stone. They will be able to do nothing with aught they have earned. And Allah guideth not the Kafirin.
The Kafirin in this verse are otherwise believers, but those who spend their substance to be seen of men. Such men will not be guided
الَّذِينَ يَبْخَلُونَ وَيَأْمُرُونَ النَّاسَ بِالْبُخْلِ وَيَكْتُمُونَ مَا آتَاهُمُ اللَّهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ ۗ وَأَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابًا مُّهِينًا An-Nisa 37
(4:37) (Allah loves not) those who are niggardly or enjoin niggardliness on others, or hide the bounties which Allah hath bestowed on them; for We have prepared, for the Kafirin a grievous punishment.
The verse 4:29 begins by addressing the believers and verse 4:37 is covered by the same address to the believers in 4:29.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَأْكُلُوا الرِّبَا أَضْعَافًا مُّضَاعَفَةً ۖ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ Al-Imran 130, 131
وَاتَّقُوا النَّارَ الَّتِي أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِينَ
(3:130) O ye who believe! Devour not usury, doubled and multiplied; but fear Allah; that ye may (really) prosper.(131) Fear the Fire, which is prepared for the Kafirin:
It is the believers who devour usury who are asked to fear the fire and such believers who devour usury are the Kafirin.
In all the verses above, most translators translate Kafirin as “those who reject faith” or as “disbelievers” which is incorrect because the addressee is the believer and he cannot be a both a believer and one who rejects faith or a disbeliever! The fact of the matter is that, since the addressee of the verse is the believer, Usury etc is Kufr for him but not for the disbeliever. Else the addressee would have been all of mankind or “the Children of Adam”.
Those who will reject the false deities in the Hereafter are being called Kafirina
وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُم مِّن شُرَكَائِهِمْ شُفَعَاءُ وَكَانُوا بِشُرَكَائِهِمْ كَافِرِينَ
30:13: No intercessor will they have among their “Partners” and they will (themselves) reject their “Partners”(become Kafirina in their partners).
One could be a Kafir for rejecting polytheism as in the verse above. Linguistically speaking, one could be a Kafir for rejecting falsehood also.
Kuffara means tillers
كَمَثَلِ غَيْثٍ أَعْجَبَ الْكُفَّارَ نَبَاتُهُ ثُمَّ يَهِيجُ فَتَرَاهُ مُصْفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَكُونُ حُطَامًا
57:20 How rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight (the hearts of) the tillers (Kuffara); soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away
The Verb Forms of Kafir Are Used For Allah for Blotting Out Our Sins
رَبَّنَا فَاغْفِرْ لَنَا ذُنُوبَنَا وَكَفِّرْ عَنَّا سَيِّئَاتِنَا وَتَوَفَّنَا مَعَ الْأَبْرَار
3:193 Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, blot (kaffir) out from us our iniquities and in our death take us among the righteous.
فَالَّذِينَ هَاجَرُوا وَأُخْرِجُوا مِن دِيَارِهِمْ وَأُوذُوا فِي سَبِيلِي وَقَاتَلُوا وَقُتِلُوا لَأُكَفِّرَنَّ عَنْهُمْ سَيِّئَاتِهِمْ وَلَأُدْخِلَنَّهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ ثَوَابًا مِّنْ عِندِ اللَّهِ
3:195 Those who have left their homes, or been driven out there from, or suffered harm in My Cause, or fought or been slain,- verily, I will blot out from them (la-Ukaffiranna) their iniquities, and admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing beneath
وَلَوْ أَنَّ أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ آمَنُوا وَاتَّقَوْا لَكَفَّرْنَا عَنْهُمْ سَيِّئَاتِهِمْ وَلَأَدْخَلْنَاهُمْ جَنَّاتِ النَّعِيمِ
(5:65) If only the People of the Book had believed and been righteous, We should indeed have blotted (Lakaffarnā) out their iniquities and admitted them to gardens of bliss.
The meaning of Kafir in the Quran is the same as the meaning of the root word kfr. Kafir is a neutral term and simply means a person who:
Covers Up, Obliterates, Wipes Out, Removes, Rejects Or Repudiates.
Therefore, any verse that speaks of the Kafaru, Kafirin, Kafirun, necessarily must mention the nature of the Kufr, and covers only those people, who indulge in that Kufr. While Kafir may mean one who rejects belief, it does not mean disbeliever in any verse of the Quran since a disbeliever is not necessarily one who has rejected belief.
Is Not Disbelief Itself Kufir Rendering The Person Kafir?
The antonym of “to believe” is “to reject belief” which is kufr and makes a person Kafir. Rejection is not the same as non-acceptance and must be either accompanied by hostile acts or after the truth of belief has become clearly manifest to them and their own self becomes a witness against their disbelief. The following verses elaborate the point beyond which a Mushrik becomes a Kafir for not accepting belief.
سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ ۗ أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ Fussilat 53
Fussilat / Explained in detail (41:53) Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own deepest selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things?
وَجَحَدُوا بِهَا وَاسْتَيْقَنَتْهَا أَنفُسُهُمْ ظُلْمًا وَعُلُوًّا ۚ فَانظُرْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُفْسِدِينَ
An-Naml / The Ant 27:14 “And they rejected those Signs in iniquity and arrogance, though their innerselves were convinced thereof: so see what the end of those who acted corruptly was!
وَشَهِدُوا عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ أَنَّهُمْ كَانُوا كَافِرِينَ
Al-A’raaf / The Heights (7:37) And they will testify against themselves that were Kafirin.
Whether the truth has become manifest in their inner selves, God alone can say. A Mushrik does not become a Kafir for rejection of the message until the truth has become manifest to him and his own self testifies against his rejection of belief. The Kufr of disbelief is only for Allah to judge and there is no punishment for it by other men nor is there a permission to fight against the disbelievers for their disbelief.
The Kafirin are not the disbelievers but those who will not believe
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ
لَا أَعْبُدُ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ
وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ
وَلَا أَنَا عَابِدٌ مَّا عَبَدتُّمْ
وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ
لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ
Surah Al-Kafirun is an early Meccan Surah (chronological order 18) and is addressed to the Kafirun among the Mushrikun. These Kafirun are told that neither do they nor will they worship what the Prophet worships. These are words of finality and such Kafir will not believe. Who are they? We can identify a few of them. The Prophet faced very hostile opposition to his mission right from the early days. The violent opponents were Abu Jahl mentioned from his behavior in Surah 96 Al –Alaq, chronologically the first Surah to be revealed, Surah 68 Al –Qalam or the Pen (chronology 2), speaks of Walid ibn Mughiyrah who was peculiarly despicable. He was a ringleader in calumniating the Prophet and who came to an evil end not long after the battle of Badr, in which he received injuries. Walid ibn Mughayrah was a wealthy Sybarite, and an inveterate enemy to the Prophet. He and Abu Jahl did all they could, from the beginning of the preaching of Islam, to abuse and persecute the Prophet, to run down his doctrine, and to injure those who believed in it. Surah 111 Al –Masad (chronological order 6) is about Abu Lahab and his wife who were also enemies of the Prophet. These and their active associates and helpers are the Kafirun that the Surah Al-Kafirun addresses. The chronological number of this Surah is 18 and may have been revealed 8 years before Hijrah during which the Prophet continued to do Da’wah among the Mushrikun leaving alone the Kafirun.
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا سَوَاءٌ عَلَيْهِمْ أَأَنذَرْتَهُمْ أَمْ لَمْ تُنذِرْهُمْ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
(2:6) As to the Kafaru, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
If Kafaru means disbeliever, then the above verse means that it is futile to do Da’wah among the disbelievers. This is obviously incorrect and clearly therefore, Kafaru does not mean disbeliever, but those with characteristics of a person who will never believe such as Abu Lahab.
فَلَا تُطِعِ الْكَافِرِينَ وَجَاهِدْهُم بِهِ جِهَادًا كَبِيرًا
Al-Furqaan / The Criterion (25: 52) Therefore listen/obey not to the Kafirin, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness.
The above verse is about not doing Da’wah to the Kafirin because it is pointless to do dawah to them but striving against them to defeat their nefarious designs.
Hud (11:36) It was revealed to Noah: “None of thy people will believe except those who have believed already! So grieve no longer over their (evil) deeds.
After the above verse was revealed, no one believed – not even Noah’s son.
Compare 11:36 with the post migration Medinian verses 8:32 and 33 in which Allah does not consider the majority of the Mushrikin as Kafirin or those who will not believe but people who could ask for pardon and accept belief.
وَإِذْ قَالُوا اللَّهُمَّ إِن كَانَ هَٰذَا هُوَ الْحَقَّ مِنْ عِندِكَ فَأَمْطِرْ عَلَيْنَا حِجَارَةً مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ أَوِ ائْتِنَا بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ
وَمَا كَانَ اللَّهُ لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَأَنتَ فِيهِمْ ۚ وَمَا كَانَ اللَّهُ مُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَهُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ
Al-Anfaal / The Spoils of War (8:32) Remember how they said: “O Allah if this is indeed the Truth from Thee, rain down on us a shower of stones from the sky, or send us a grievous penalty.” (33) But Allah was not going to send them a penalty whilst thou wast amongst them; nor was He going to send it whilst they could ask for pardon.
Not all the disbelievers are Kafir who will not believe. There are people who are disbelievers because they lack knowledge (لَّا يَعْلَمُونَ 9:6) or those who fear persecution from the Kafirin if they accept belief as is clear from 10:83 below:
(10:83) But none believed in Moses except some children of his people, because of the fear of Pharaoh and his chiefs, lest they should persecute them; and certainly Pharaoh was mighty on the earth and one who transgressed all bounds.
The disbelievers who are not Kafir will believe once the leaders of Kufr who are preventing them from accepting belief are removed and once they gain true knowledge.
When the Quran uses Kafir for one who has no faith in God and has rejected belief, such a person is also Zalim, Mujrim, Fasiq, Musrif, Mufsid, Alin and Mutakabbir
When Kafir is used for one who has rejected belief, and one who will not believe, such a person is not simply a disbeliever, but someone like Satan, Pharaoh, Abu Jahl or Abu Lahab. He/she is also a Zalim (oppressor), Mujrim (criminal), Fasiq (one who transgresses all limits of what is right), Musrif (extravagant), Mufsid (mischief monger), haughty, proud and arrogant. To quote Pickthall, “In the Qur’an I find two meanings (of a Kafir), which become one the moment that we try to realize the divine standpoint. The Kafir in the first place, is not the follower of any religion. He is the opponent of Allah’s benevolent will and purpose for mankind – therefore the disbeliever in the truth of all religions, the disbeliever in all Scriptures as of divine revelation, the disbeliever to the point of active opposition in all the Prophets (pbut) whom the Muslims are bidden to regard, without distinction, as messengers of Allah.”
(6:21) Who doth more wrong than he who inventeth a lie against Allah or rejecteth His signs? But verily the Zalimun never shall prosper.
(10:17) Who doth more wrong than such as forge a lie against Allah, or deny His Signs? But verily the Mujrimun never shall prosper.
(23:117) If anyone invokes, besides Allah, Any other god, he has no authority therefore; and his reckoning will be only with his Lord! But verily the Kafirun never shall prosper.
(6:135) Say: “O my people! Do whatever ye can: I will do (my part): soon will ye know who it is whose end will be (best) in the Hereafter: certain it is that the Zalimun will not prosper.”
(19:37) But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the Kafaru because of the (coming) Judgment of a Momentous Day!(38) How plainly will they see and hear, the Day that they will appear before Us! but the Zalimun today are in error manifest!
(31:11) Such is the Creation of Allah: now show Me what is there that others besides Him have created: nay, but the Zalimun are in manifest error.
(36:47) And when they are told, “Spend ye of (the bounties) with which Allah has provided you,” the Kafaru say to those who believe: “Shall we then feed those whom, if Allah had so willed, He would have fed, (Himself)?- Ye are in nothing but manifest error.”
(29:49) Nay, here are Signs self-evident in the hearts of those endowed with knowledge: and none but the Zalimun reject Our Signs.
(31:32) ….. and none but the traitorous kafurin reject Our Signs.
(29:47) …. and none but the Kafirun reject our signs.
(6:49) But those who reject our signs,- them shall punishment touch, for that they ceased not from transgressing (Yafsaqun).
(17:99) See they not that Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth, has power to create the like of them (anew)? Only He has decreed a term appointed, of which there is no doubt. But the Zalimun refuse (to receive it) except with ingratitude (Illa Kufuran).
(6:93) Who can be more wicked than one who inventeth a lie against Allah, or saith, “I have received inspiration,” when he hath received none, or (again) who saith, “I can reveal the like of what Allah hath revealed”? If thou couldst but see how the Zalimun (do fare) in the flood of confusion at death! – the angels stretch forth their hands, (saying),”Yield up yourselves: this day shall ye receive your reward,- a penalty of shame, for that ye used to tell lies against Allah, and scornfully to reject of His signs!”
(165) When they disregarded the warnings that had been given them, We rescued those who forbade Evil; but We visited the wrong-doers (Zalamu) with a grievous punishment because they were given to transgression (Yafsuqun).
(21:9) In the end We fulfilled to them Our Promise, and We saved them and those whom We pleased, but We destroyed those who transgressed beyond bounds (Musrifin).
10:83 And indeed, Pharaoh was haughty within the land, and indeed, he was of the transgressors (l-Mus’rifīna)
The characteristics of Pharaoh the archetype Kafir:
L-Mus’rifīna (extravagant, given to excesses) 10:83, 44:31
Fasiq (rebel, wicked, transgressor) 28:32,
L-Muf’sidīna (mischievous) 7:103, 28:4,
Khāṭiīna (sinner, wrong doer) 28:8,
ʿĀliyan, LaʿĀlin (arrogant, tyrant) 44:31, 10:83
Mutakabbir (arrogant, insolent, haughty, proud) 29:39, 10:75
Kafarū Biāyāti L-Lahi (Rejecter of the signs of Allah) 8:52
Zalim (wrong-doer, oppressor) 8:54
A Kafir is not simply any disbeliever, but one who will not believe because of the traits described above.
40:37 Thus was made alluring, in Pharaoh´s eyes, the evil of his deeds, and he was hindered from the Path; and the plot of Pharaoh led to nothing but perdition (for him).
When Kafir is used in the context of a man’s faith, it acquires the most odious meaning. Kafir when used in this context, is a Zalim, Mujrim, Fasiq, Mufsid or a tyrant, sinner a pervert transgressor of all that is good and reasonable and a mischief monger. These are indeed the synonyms of Kafir in such a context. He is not simply a disbeliever but congenitally incapable of belief. He is covered with arrogance, haughtiness, selfishness, perversity etc. The type of person Allah will never bless with faith. This word does not apply to an ordinary non-Muslim or disbeliever.
Kafir Is Not Used For the Disbelievers Even In the Very Last Verses of the Revelations
Among the very last verses about the Mushrikin of Mecca is verse 9:5, in which Allah announces the penalty of death on those vanquished Mushrikin who had fought the Muslims violating their treaty, if they remain in Hijaz at the end of the four-month amnesty period without accepting Islam. In this verse also, such people are not referred to as Kafir or as people who will not believe, because the verse holds out the possibility that they may accept Islam. And indeed, all of them accepted Islam and no one was killed as per verse 9:5.
To call anyone a Kafir for his beliefs involves passing a judgment. Allah did not pass such a judgment on a people among whom the Prophet had preached for 13 years, who then drove him out of Mecca, fought battles to annihilate the Muslims, violated their treaties, were vanquished eight years later, were not avenged for eighteen months after their defeat, and yet remained disbelievers. Even such people were considered potential believers and therefore not Kafir or not among those who will not believe. If such people are not called Kafir in the Quran, then how can anyone be considered as Kafir for his beliefs? It is only Allah who can judge a person as Kafir and it is not only the non-Muslims who will be so judged, but many among the Muslims who are oppressors, sinners, transgressors, mischief mongers, ingrate rebels will also be among the ranks of the Kafirin. Indeed, we have seen from the verses of the Quran that a Kafir can be from among any people including the believers. Calling a person Kafir for his beliefs when he does not have the traits of a Kafir described in the article, is derogation, slander and a travesty. Those who do so are the Zalim, Mujrim, Fasiq and Mufsid or the unjust, criminal, transgressors and mischief mongers.
*Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to www.NewAgeIslam.com, where this article was published.